Remember, “All things in moderation, but all things.” That was the old days. With gambling, we left moderation 20 lengths behind and are now running free. Toward what, a cliff?
You can gamble in casinos or online, offshore illegally or through a legal sportsbook (in 18 states and D.C.). You can play high-stakes poker on a computer with people you have never met. You have fantasy leagues and FanDuel, DraftKings and March Madness pools, all of it adding up to a $150 billion pot — unless the real number is far higher than that gambling-industry guesstimate.
Can this possibly be an improvement? In a country where 80 percent of Americans say they have gambled in the past year, where will such a pervasive habit of mind, often addictive, manifest itself? And where might it lead?
Yes. And a stunned Wall Street knows it and says it.
But if you watched large tech stocks nearly double in 100 days, then saw the trillion-dollar flash crash that ended Tuesday, part of that wild scene was sports gamblers, playing with a new toy they barely understand. Stimulus checks helped, as did options, margin and free trading.
You can be sure Wall Street is watching, nervously, to see whether this new trading cohort takes its profits, en masse, and repurposes that cash to the reopening NFL, which has 13 games, gambler’s heaven, on Sunday.
For years, Wall Street has sought more “retail investors,” which often means little-guy suckers with fast money chasing hot tips. Many fled after the dot-com bubble crash of 2000 and the 2008 financial crisis.
The “public” was incinerated for a generation, right? Instead, the next wave was holding a small pair, waiting on the river. Now that they’re back, who has whom by the tail?
“Sports gambling is a huge business, and a lot of sports gamblers and these millennial gamers are now playing the stock market, day trading,” said Jim Bianco, a Wall Street macro strategist in a recent TV interview. CNBC guru Jim Cramer, who can exaggerate, barely goes a week without claiming that sports gamblers “are the market” right now.
Enrollment in Robinhood and other no-or-low-fee web-based trading platforms has gone parabolic. Nearly 800,000 new accounts hit the three biggest online brokers in March and April, according to the Financial Times.
Historically, day-trading is another losing gamble. In 2011, research by professors at the University of California at Berkeley found that individual investors who traded actively and speculated without diversified portfolios typically lost money over time.
It’s no surprise they underperformed. What’s crazy is that the more they traded the more likely they were to go negative. How do you lose when the average annual gain in the U.S. market since 1871 is 10.78 percent? Start at 1930, 1970 or 2005 and it’s almost exactly 11 percent.
Part of me wants to say to these new traders: Good for you and welcome aboard. I have enjoyed studying the markets for 25 years. Just wish I had started much earlier.
My hope, perhaps a fantasy, is that many new day traders, once they gain experience, will transition from gambling — a money-losing activity (in aggregate) — to the best wealth-building plan for normal people: investing.
Right now, most newbies are speculating — just more gambling. Stock tips, high-risk options for leverage and margin trading (using borrowed money). Stocks always go up, right?
So far, they are a fortunate group. Pro sports — and casinos — shut down just as the market had its fastest crash ever, down 35 percent in March. Great. But “don’t confuse brains with a bull market.”
Old pros now tell the kids to “take some profits” or even “sell it all.” I don’t care. I’m just glad they met the stock market. Why? You can’t tell people to “gamble less” once they have the bug — as our whole nation does. But you can say that, if they want enough action to satisfy them while making a lot of money over a lifetime, they just met the method.
To me, any dollar that leaves sports gambling and goes to investing, even with a speculative portion, is good for the future of sports — and a financial salvation for gamblers. I think gamblers are smart enough to figure out the most basic point: They’re in the wrong game.
Gamblers know that when there’s a middleman — a racetrack, casino or sportsbook — the rake off is roughly 10 percent. You still play uphill your whole life. If you gamble head-to-head, at least you start off even. No juice to pay. That way, talent can prevail. Elite poker players can win millions in a lifetime. But then so can the average family — by investing for a lifetime.
If you saved two dollars a day from age 18 to 68, you would have $36,500. Why bother? Why not just spend or gamble it?
But if you had invested that two dollars a day in the stock market — in the S&P 500 with a low fee — from 1965 through 2014 (a typical 50-year stretch), you would have ended up with $1,188,814.
That’s Investing 101: the Miracle of Compounding. But it still amazes me. Millions of people can save and invest $730 a year in a country where the median household income is around $62,000.
How boring, but not-so-hard, it would be to amass multiples of that — and breathe easier — with patience. But with money, who has patience — at least these days.
Everybody knows that the United States has had constantly growing income inequality for more than 40 years, a winner-take-all trend that has coincided with our gambling boom.
And we wonder why more people gamble, why more want to get from here, where they feel left behind like losers, to there, standing beside the rich winners. Just being in the game, having a bet on the table — any table — is a momentary lunge toward winner.
Gambling is right in line with our current respect for ostentation. Millionaire, millionaire, at the least! Unconsciously, I bet I picked $1 million as the target price for my two-dollars-a-day investing example. What, I didn’t think a dollar a day for half of that would get your attention?
Millions of U.S. families will never dream of making $62,000 a year. That’s a different, huge problem.
For today, let’s stick to: Why are we are gambling, more and more, all the time? Sure, a small percentage of elite or lucky gamblers make money. But there’s another game in town — one that’s so much easier and that is tilted your way.
The pandemic will impact our culture in ways we never imagined. If some — or many — of our sports gamblers slowly become investors, it will be a silver lining for everyone.